Tumo: A Gem on the Hill in Yerevan

Tumo: A Gem on the Hill in Yerevan

By Jackie Abramian // December 21, 2013

Special to the Armenian Weekly

Crossing over the Kievyan Bridge in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan,
you take a right turn onto Halabyan Street where once the expansive
Tumanyan Park spread out on the right side of the road – and now is a
manicured, professionally landscaped park sporting modern, colorful
playgrounds, sports fields and courts and benches that cater to the
surrounding populace. And beyond the park, set on a hill, sits a
massive structure. Engraved across the front of the building in both
Armenian and English letters it reads: Tumo Center for Creative

TUMO News team working on their assignments during the workshop.

I was arriving here to give a three-week long workshop on PR,
Marketing and Social Media and news writing – with a vision to create
the foundation for Tumo News, a multi-media, student-designed,
written, edited, published and promoted publication. I hoped to train
a group of ambassadors who via social media, the Internet, writing and
multi-media talents could reach their peers in Armenia and beyond to
spread the word about the offerings and events at the oasis upon the
hill. But I had no idea if my vision would be realized or fall flat.

Having been a witness and part of Armenia’s evolving history and
political systems since the mid-1980s as cross-cultural organizer (for
Cambridge and Yerevan sister city program), my multiple visits to
Armenia have given me front seat views of the epochs of Communism,
Glasnost and Perestroika, democratic developments, the Karabakh war,
the tragic earthquake, and the rise to independence. I’ve experienced
the perfect mix of simultaneous political and economic chaos and
progress – especially after having lived in Armenia in 1992 at the
height of the Karabakh war and the Azeri blockade, remembering too
well the dark period when frost bitten extremities were the norm, food
was a luxury to hunger for, and hope fulfilled our appetites for life.

Now I was to spend three weeks with a group of young men and women
born into an independent Republic of Armenia with no experience or
memory of those cold days of 1992.

TUMO News reporter, Lusineh Torossyan and photographer Gor Mkhitaryan
interviewing Serouj Aprahamian before his breakdancing workshop.

Tumo, where teenagers study video game design, animation, web
development and filmmaking, is unlike anything else in Armenia today.
The Tumo staff of 120 is a core group of young, IT savvy
professionals – bright, enthusiastic, multi-lingual and well versed on
the latest technologies. Armed with a swipe card that allows you
access to elevators, doors, offices, and basically in and out of the
Center, I was escorted for a complete tour of the Center by Tania
Sahakian (workshop coordinator) and assigned a workshop class on the
first floor. My two workshop assistants (and much needed translators
when lost for Armenian translations) Nare Ter-Gabrielyan and Nayiry
Ghazarian are part of a group of 25 full and part-time coaches working
with and assisting students.

As I watched from the tall windows onto the sprawling, geometrically
designed Tumo Park and the front entrance of the Center, the first
session (3:30-5:30pm) students began to arrive: spilling out of taxi
vans, private cars, public transport and streaming toward the Center’s
front entrance. Then, at exactly 3:30, hundreds of ID cards swiped
through the slots as a sea of children, like flood gates lifted,
rushed to take possession of Tumobiles, the individualized, mobile
computer stations, connected to the data and network via modern
spiraling wires that reach high to the ceilings. New students are
introduced to Tumo World a special learning interface that prepares
them for hands-on experience. By earning points on their activities,
the students can then move up to other activities and workshops, as
well as gain free-play and access to unstructured playrooms and
equipment. Tumobiles, exclusively designed for Tumo by the well-known
architect Bernard Khoury, whose designs also adorn the modern interior
architecture, are unique.

Now on its third year of operations, Tumo is a phenomenon of an
unyielding reality amidst much uncertainty that has plagued this
ancient land. Tumo seals the drainage of serious brain-drain in
today’s Armenia by offering high-quality education, professional
training and apprenticeship opportunities to help reverse the
catastrophic levels of emigration. Tumo’s offerings empower Armenia’s
youth with the best technology and multi-media training from local and
world-renowned experts for an unprecedented apprenticeship to engage
with, absorb and learn. Where else would Armenia’s youth have an
opportunity to personally interview a Google executive? Learn from
animation master, Pixar’s Katherine Sarafian, or bring to life one-act
plays as the culmination of a workshop led by stage professional Ani
Nina Oganyan? And choose from countless other workshops (up to 20 per
month offered to over 5,000 students)?

TUMO News team group photo

Tumo is much more than an `after-school experience.’ It’s an
opportunity for Armenia’s new generation to seize knowledge from field
experts with hands-on, active involvement and to pave their own path
to success. Spread over 65,000 square foot on the first two floors of
the modern building, Tumo offers nearly 500 computers, 100 iPads,
numerous multi-media equipped labs for workshop classes and other
equipment available to the students and the staff – along with an
affordably priced, modern cafeteria offering freshly baked goods and
refreshments, all for a one-time charge of 10,000 Drams ($25),
returned to the families when the student completes or exits the
program. Tumo is an equalizer of opportunities for success for
Armenia’s `haves and the have nots.’ With a branch site already
operational in Dilijan through funding from the Central Bank, Tumo is
set to open a similar center in Stepanakert with the support of AGBU,
and hopes to open smaller scale centers in cities like Goris and

The brainchild of Sam and Sylva Simonian, Tumo is funded by the
Simonian Educational Foundation, which also funds the geometrically
designed and landscaped adjoining plaza and 40 acre Tumanyan Park.
While the Simonians are actively involved in the infrastructure of the
center, Marie Lou Papazian directs the day-to-day activities of the
center while her husband, Pegor Papazian, a board member, is actively
involved in planning and coordinating the center’s activities. Tumo’s
impressive board of advisors includes such top professionals as
Twitter’s VP of Engineering Raffi Krikorian, Pixar’s award-winning
animator Katherine Sarafian, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, academy
award winning digital effects pro Roger Kupelian, and artist and
social commentator Vahe Berberian.

Tumo News Workshop

As some 20 students filed into Tumo News workshop, I met their eager
eyes and heard for the first time their names that I was to memorize
for the coming weeks. I was putting names and faces together as the
group had already created a Tumo News Facebook page prior to my
arrival. There was an obvious eagerness to learn and put into action
all that had been talked about to this point. So during our first
session on social media I asked each student to create their own
Twitter site and as I prepared to provide step-by-step instructions, a
flood of new followers began following me on my Twitter. `What’s
next,’ they wanted to know. We then selected editors, reporters,
design and layout and social media teams, videographers and
photographers. Then the students offered a list of assignments: from
select workshops, presentations, lectures and individuals to interview
at Tumo. By the end of the week, the design team had already designed
variations of the Tumo News logo which they presented to the whole
team. The critique session and commentaries on the logo was nothing
short of a group of professionals offering opinions. By the end of the
first week I was astonished at the extent of achievement and work that
had already taken place in five days.

As I reviewed interview techniques with the Tumo News Team, showed
sample TV interviews, discussed article parts, writing styles and
differences between PR, Marketing and Advertising, the levels of
questions, discussions and grasp of new information was nothing short
of that of a mature audience. With assistance from Tumo’s
communications department, the Tumo News team set up social media
sites, while the design team worked with Hayk Galstyan of the Tumo
software development group to realize their logo and publication
layout and design. And so by the third week the Tumo News team saw
their work come to life – and thus set up the foundation for the future
of a multi-media student eNewsletter and print publication where teens
communicate with teens about Tumo events and offerings from their
point of view.

As I left the Tumo News team, with whom I hope to be working
long-distance in the coming months, I have no doubt that in the near
future I will once again meet them either in person or virtually. But
this time not as Tumo News workshop participants, but as Armenia’s
thought leaders, professionals and trail blazers in their respective
chosen fields. And while many may leave the borders to seek advanced
training, they attest they endeavor to return to offer and pay back to
their ancestral land which defines the context of their own identity.
As army-bound Davit Balayan so proudly pronounced during an afternoon
chat at the student cafeteria at Tumo:

`What’s been given and bestowed upon me by my forefathers – my cultural
identity and traditions – is now my responsibility to preserve. If I
leave Armenia for higher training, I will return to help elevate the
professional levels of my people and my country. This is where I will
always be.’

When in 1992 I boarded the plane to return to my comfortable home in
the US, leaving behind an Armenia in darkness with half stump trees
standing as silhouettes of ghosts in the stark streets of Yerevan, I
wasn’t sure there would be an Armenia to return to.

This December 2013, leaving Armenia after having had the honor of
spending three weeks with Tumo professionals and workshop
participants, I have tears of elation knowing that the future of
Armenia will be in the hands of the young professionals whose
intellectual empowerment was made possible by that phenomenon upon the
hill on 16 Halabyan Street where one student at a time a team of
visionaries are building the future of an Armenia we will all be proud
to be part of and live in.

In the words of singer/songwriter Arthur Meschian’s lyrics: `I believe
that still the roots of our tree haven’t dried, and will give new
shoots….and no matter how we lose ourselves in this world…. the melody
of a familiar note, will always lead us back home.’


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